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Israel Says Troops Could Pull Back From West Bank Soon

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says Israel will hand over control of several West Bank cities to Palestinian security forces within the next few days. The news comes after a meeting between Mr. Mofaz and a senior Palestinian security chief

In an interview with Israel Radio Sunday, Mr. Mofaz said Israel will hand over control of some West Bank cities to Palestinian security forces in the coming days.

The Israeli official said he believes there is now, what he termed, an opportunity to put an end to terror. He said the opportunity must be seized and used to create a new relationship with the Palestinians that could lead to a peace agreement.

The defense minister did not say which Palestinian cities are to be turned over, nor exactly when the transfer of security responsibility would take place. Mr. Mofaz said he would hold further talks with Palestinian security official Mohammed Dahlan to work out details.

Palestinian sources, however, said their forces would assume responsibility for first Ramallah, then Tulkarem, Qalqilya and Jericho.

Mr. Mofaz said the Palestinians have shown a willingness to assume security responsibility and move forward with security cooperation with Israel.

The Israeli official also said that a wide range of issues was discussed during his first round of talks with Mr. Dahlan on Saturday night.

Mr. Mofaz told the regular Sunday meeting of the Israeli Cabinet that Israel would continue to pursue militants who pose an immediate threat, what the government calls ticking bombs.

But he said Israeli forces would otherwise exercise restraint, and make every effort not to harm Palestinian security services or civilians. There has been a decrease in Israeli military raids in Palestinian areas in recent days.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been working on getting militants to agree to a temporary cease-fire, and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Sunday that a formal agreement is close. But, he said it would depend on Israel also formally declaring a cease-fire, withdrawing troops from West Bank cities and releasing Palestinian prisoners.

Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported Sunday that February 8 has been set as the tentative date for a meeting between Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in the region a few days before the planned summit.